[su_dropcap size=”5″]A[/su_dropcap]ny analysis of Ava has to reconcile the movie it wants to be with the movie it actually is. The filmmakers clearly aim for lofty ground, showing us an emotionally brittle contract killer who comes home to mend fences. Unfortunately, the story often lands in the weeds, replete with tired spy clichés and a third act that gets less satisfying as it goes along. If you can summon enough respect for this film’s contemplative moments and the top-tier actors who play in them, you might have a decent time with all this dolled-up hooey. Otherwise, you’re better off sticking with the Bornes, Bonds, and Femme Nikitas of the world.
Like every protagonist in every assassin movie, Ava (Jessica Chastain) is exhausted, conflicted, and fumbling for a way out the business. She shakily confronts her quarry before she kills them: They must’ve done something to deserve this bullet, right? Something horrible, hopefully. Duke (John Malkovich), her boss and mentor, urges Ava to sit out a few plays and sort out her mind. Ava responds by going Grosse Pointe Blank and heading home, where a fractured family and a few painful memories await her.
Turns out, Ava got where she is by running from who she was. Once an overachieving student, Ava fell into a destructive spiral of booze and pills, exasperating her mother (Geena Davis) and sister (Jess Weixler). Ultimately, she gets clean by joining the military, a path that ends with her becoming a ruthless, well-paid assassin.
Ava also follows the example of a bajillion other spy movies by having the One Last Job turn out to be more than our hero can handle. It seems that word of Ava’s guilt-ridden dialogue with her victims has filtered to upper management. Conflicted killers tend to be sloppy and prone to getting compromised, so it isn’t long before the head spymaster (Colin Farrell) puts a hit on Ava. Naturally, this forces her to confront her sketchy occupation and shattered family relationships at the same time.
The resulting movie is a lot like a microwaved Hot Pocket: Everything runs either blisteringly hot or completely frozen. The fight scenes feel Xeroxed over from John Wick and Jason Bourne, and they get dull and repetitive after a while. That goes ditto for the main characters. Farrell’s hotheaded boss and Malkovich’s grandfatherly bad-ass might as well have been built out of a kit.
Another cliche this movie leans heavily on: Picture a scuzz-bucket henchman with a dad-bod, bedecked in military garb. A sultry young woman hangs on his arm and laughs liltingly at everything he says. Anybody’s who seen enough of these movies will instantly know that she’s an assassin and he’s about to be deader than disco.
Now, let’s talk about Ava‘s strengths. To get full perspective, we’ll compare it to a similar movie that absolutely sucked donkeys: Luc Besson’s Anna. That was also a spy epic about a young woman who wants out, but with some key differences. Anna (Sasha Luss) was aloof and superhuman, thus rendering her video game fight scenes meaningless. As the lead, Luss was clunky and unconvincing. With this film, Chastain brings depth and humanity to Ava. We root for her to find some form of redemption. Many of Ava’s moments with her mother and sister ring with truth. The same goes for Malkovich and Farrell, who elevate their thinly-sketched roles with the skill of old pros.
So, how should I rate Ava? It’s not great, but I’ve seen way worse. You know those background movies you have on while you fold laundry or clean expired condiments out of your fridge? That’s this one. Ava may reach for greatness and fail, but it does succeed at being pleasantly unmemorable. Three stars sounds about right.
96 min. R. (VoD)